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Political scientists explore foreign policy options

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Four MIT political scientists explored US foreign policy options in response to recent terrorist attacks and in anticipation of a new era of global interdependence at a teach-in on Thursday, Oct. 4.

Their discussion was moderated by Richard Samuels, director of the MIT Center for International Studies, and was held in Room 26-100.

After two hours, the group had agreed generally that a military response to the Sept. 11 attacks was likely and, to some, necessary. A unilateral US military response, especially a fast conventional one, struck them all as certain disaster.

Diplomatic responses based on forging broad new multilateral coalitions to combat terrorism were essential to US and global security, the panelists agreed with varying urgency.

Joshua Cohen, the Leon and Anne Goldberg Professor of Humanities, went beyond security issues to envision humanitarian benefits to this new multilateral diplomacy.

"International cooperation based on a shared moral norm of protecting innocent human life might be sustained beyond the current efforts, when the lives at stake are no longer American: on addressing the AIDS plague in sub-Saharan Africa and on addressing the destitution that defines the lives of a billion or so people in the world," he said.


Samuels noted that US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War had little to recommend it to friend or foe before Sept. 11.

Characterized by withdrawing from treaties and ignoring protests, US "triumphalism and unilateralism were already generating backlash among our own allies in NATO," Samuels said.

Harvey M. Sapolsky, director of the MIT Security Studies Program and a professor of political science, reviewing past US foreign policy, characterized it as "arrogant, dangerous, foolish and even a bit evil -- we've made promises in places like the Balkans that we're not prepared to live up to."


Acknowledging the "great grievances" provoked by US military presence in the Middle East -- including the forces based in Saudi Arabia -- Sapolsky advocated a military response to the Sept. 11 attack and expressed concern that a Taliban surrender of Osama bin Laden would hobble US efforts to destroy his organization, known as Al Qaeda.

Following US military action in Afghanistan, Sapolsky recommended a longer-range policy of limited goals such as helping out refugees and developing a new government. The U.S. should not be responsible for establishing democracy or restoring property, he said.

"The fight with Al Qaeda is much more than a fight with Afghanistan. We will need diplomacy, intelligence, police work and military power," said Professor Barry Posen of political science, who referred to a map of the region around Afghanistan to show the US and British naval build-up already underway.

Posen recommended that US policy support the Northern Alliance (a coalition of leaders of non-Taliban groups) to aid in dispersing the military forces of Al Qaeda and in reducing their power in Afghan society.

Stephen Van Evera, associate professor of political science, stated that the Taliban and Al Qaeda were "very, very dangerous organizations posing a very serious threat."

US foreign policy must focus on counter-terrorism to combat this threat by encouraging the "softer side of the Taliban to join the U.S. through bribes or intimidation. We should not over-militarize our power," Van Evera said.

Long-range policy development should be based on US awareness of its real position among nations. US policies on trade, on Arab media development and on our own cultural exports should support equitable foreign relations, he said.

"The U.S. should understand that we're asking the world to accept unequal power relations, a double standard. What entitles the U.S. to run world affairs so tightly? How can we tell Iraq not to build nuclear weapons? There has to be a quid pro quo. If we want the privilege and right of being a superpower we cannot be arrogant. We must take other people into account all the time," Van Evera said.

Cohen warned against both unilateral action and unilateral interpretation of events from Sept. 11 onward.

"What happened then is that thousands of innocent people were slaughtered. Nobody can condone that. But whatever our response, it should not be cast as a defense of the US way of life, of democracy, of individualism. If we must attack, the moral reason is, we -- the international community -- face a common foe, a violation of a moral principle of not taking innocent lives," he said.

"US Policy Options" was one in a series of teach-ins sponsored by the MIT Center for International Studies in cooperation with the political science department; Boston Review; foreign languages and literatures section; Science, Technology and Society Program; Comparative Media Studies Program; economics department; and the dean's office, School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.

The final teach-in, "Economic Implications of the Crisis," will be held on Oct. 11 in Room 26-100 from 5 to 7 p.m. It will be followed by discussion over dinner.

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